SROs Are a Symptom of the Disease Called Poverty

I am Anakh Sul Rama. I am formerly homeless and I live with and community-organize with formerly homeless people in single resident occupancy hotels, or SROs.

I don’t think that people know what they are saying when they say that “We are ALL in this together.” We are not all in this together. Similar to how the phrase “ALL lives matter” whitewashes the implications of police violence on black people, “we are all in this together” minimizes the incredible struggle disparity that exists in our day-to-day from a race and class context. 

I thought about giving a play-by-play description of how many objects I have to touch that untold others have had to touch in order to go to the bathroom, kitchen, down the hall, outside, and come back to my room. It’s not so simple as sanitizing those items though, and I don’t want you to think we can easily adapt and change our behaviors to survive. There’s the larger context and long-term survival of my neighbors and our communities at stake.

I share kitchens and bathrooms with 50 other people surviving poverty-induced traumas. In some SRO buildings folks share space with many more. Our rooms are not divided by insulated walls, and our neighbor is literally breathing feet away in some instances. Poverty trauma, mental illness, addiction and inopportunity create environments where no- and low-income people distrust information given to and about us because we know we are not prioritized for survival by the same systems that keep driving race and class disparity. Thus virus denial is a thing. 

If you think you’re stressed being indoors, imagine that space is less than 10-by-10 feet with all your belongings in it. I am unable to walk more than four full footsteps and two regular paces in my space. I HAVE to go outside because I don’t have a place to stretch my legs. Nor does my dog. 

I spray clean the toilet, but I have already touched at least two common door knobs before I get back to my room, so I have to sanitize my hands again. For weeks I have been trying to get sanitizer bottles for 108 units in three buildings in my neighborhood, and we just can’t resource that amount of smaller bottles. 

The City passed an ordinance mandating that the public wear masks before ensuring that people in poverty would have access to them. There is one property manager with a family and three buildings a block apart with 108 people. He couldn’t keep up delivering the food donations, so we only get that once a week. He is doing the best he can with what he’s got. It’s not like we are living it up and being catered to as some would have you believe.

Systems of inopportunity and unequal access drives race and class divide that keeps SRO hotels in existence. Why then are we not repurposing some of the vacant hotels to bring people off the streets? These hotel rooms are coveted by those of us in SROs because they have their own bathrooms and often, kitchenettes. Our SRO rooms are good if they have a usable sink. We know our neighbors on the streets need those rooms to be safe, but we are talking about tens of thousands of rooms throughout the city and region. It’s not us or them. We know if our leaders and decision makers truly prioritized us they would have already created a housing mobility mechanism so that people who are in supportive SROs can move into spaces with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes that are effectively micro studios. This would create a flow for people who have more intensive needs to access SRO-supportive environments. 

Unfortunately, the forces of tough love moderation and luxury housing choice supporters are united and are making decisions as if the previous status quo in housing inequity is the end game. Why did we see luxury housing production continue for weeks after SIP was announced? Eventually complaints meant that construction was dialed back to affordable housing only. Yet the housing pipeline continues to approve housing formulas pre-pandemic as if that’s an ok norm to aspire to. Tens of millions are out of work and no one can pay their rent right now but we still need more $3,000 condos to alleviate luxury choice. We need to face the post pandemic reality that millions are out of work and millions are already homeless. Millions more are about to be. We need better plans. What if we used this opportunity to incentivize displaced black and brown communities to return? Call it antigentification and replacement return. Maybe the decision makers should consider what that would look like. No more status quo. 

I have often cringed when people say that they want to “end homelessness” or “solve homelessness.” Unless the economic conditions which create homelessness like evictions, unequal economic access and racial disparity are challenged, we will not have any movement in curing the disease, only treating the symptom. It’s clear decision makers are worried about the visible symptomatic aspects of homelessness and poverty, and we need them to come with holistic solutions that prioritizes the whole of our community having safe homes. Permanent solutions like housing homeless people in hotel rooms now and creating housing flow for people in SROs will create the community interventions we will need to save the ENTIRE community from viral resurgence.

I hadn’t even touched on food inequities, criminal justice inequities and debt inequity faced by myself and neighbors in this pandemic because abruptly yesterday I recognized I could no longer ignore the multiple subtle symptoms and have since gotten tested. I chose to be open with my neighbors in the hopes it will encourage others with even mild symptoms to get tested. I will find out by tomorrow but if it’s negative I expect I will have to take the test again in the coming weeks as this won’t end for us in low income congregate space when it does for the rest of people. 

These masks were donated by United Playas to SRO residents